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Preckwinkle, Lightfoot differ in approach to City Council

Toni Preckwinkle, a former alderman, and Lori Lightfoot, her opponent in the April 2 mayoral runoff, have different ideas about how they will deal with the City Council. | File photo

Lori Lightfoot wants to give the City Council its own attorney, televise committee meetings, impose term limits for committee chairmen and end aldermanic prerogative, the unwritten rule giving local alderman iron-fisted control over zoning, permits and licenses in their wards.

Toni Preckwinkle spent 19 years in the City Council. She wants to keep aldermanic prerogative and ban outside income to stop the parade of aldermen marching off to federal prison.

The two women vying to become Chicago’s first African-American female mayor aired divergent views Tuesday on how to clean up City Council corruption during an endorsement session before the Chicago Tribune editorial board.

Lightfoot said aldermanic prerogative has been the common thread through virtually every one of the 30-some aldermanic convictions since 1970. It’s also at the heart of the attempted extortion charge against now-deposed Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th).

“No alderman should have that kind of power where people feel like the only way that they can get basic city services and get business done in a ward is to kiss the ring of the alderman. … That is corrosive. … I’m gonna drive a stake through that,” Lightfoot said.

“We have a sitting city alderman — Danny Solis — who wore a wire for two years. It is unprecedented in the history of public corruption in our city. There is no doubt in my mind that, in the coming days and weeks at the most, we are going to see a series of indictments. … It is going to center around this issue of aldermanic prerogative. We need to be on the right side of history on this issue.”

Preckwinkle occupied the Hyde Park seat once held by legendary Ald. Leon Despres (5th), the conscience of the City Council, who dared to stand toe-to-toe with Mayor Richard J. Daley.

She called it an unfair “derogatory characterization” for Lightfoot to claim there are “literally tens of thousands of contacts every single year between constituents and aldermen” that are “below the radar screen” and “fundamentally problematic.”

“That’s not true. The overwhelming majority of the work you do is pretty mundane. It’s connecting people to city services. It’s intervening” to help people find housing or place their kids in selective enrollment schools, Preckwinkle said.

“It’s true that we’ve had some challenges with people who’ve misused their power. That’s always gonna be the case in any human enterprise. But, aldermanic staffs and aldermen work hard to serve their constituents…There’s a process in place… to give people an opportunity to make corrections if they think their alderman is not performing. That’s what we call elections.”

The Tribune endorsed Bill Daley in Round One of the mayoral sweepstakes. That means the newspaper’s runoff endorsement is now up for grabs.

Precwinkle made her pitch by repeatedly emphasizing her nearly three decades of executive experience — for the last eight years, as county board president.

It was particularly helpful when the questioning turned to how each candidate would find $270 million immediately and $1 billion over the next five years to solve the city’s $28 billion pension crisis.

“When I came into office in 2010, we had a $487 million budget gap. … I brought in each of the 11 separately-elected officials and said, `You have to cut your budget 15 percent.’ … In one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make, we laid off 1,500 people,” Preckinkle said.

“There was no magic solution. There was no silver bullet. It was shared sacrifice. But we closed that budget deficit. And we closed a deficit of more than $300 million the next year. … Over the course of the last eight years, we’ve closed $2.1 billion in budget deficits. We’ve made $850 million in cuts.”

While Preckwinkle was talking, Lightfoot spent much of the time smiling and exuding confidence.

When it was her turn, Lightfoot candidly acknowledged all the talk about the windfall from an elusive Chicago casino and legalizing recreational marijuana will not come soon enough to spare beleaguered Chicago taxpayers from yet another punishing round of post-election tax increases.

“We’re gonna have a conversation about revenue. There’s no two ways about it. … We’re gonna have to find what I hope are progressive sources of revenue to be able to meet the challenges that we have — not only in the structural deficit in the budget, but also to meet our pension obligation next year,” Lightfoot said.

The new mayor, she argued, must “build the case” for new revenue by: imposing a risk management system; reining in runaway settlements and judgments; drafting a “comprehensive land use plan”; consolidating the four city employee pension funds; making the city clerk and treasurer executive—not elective offices, and eliminating redundant city services.

“That’s what I mean when I talk about building the case for revenue,” she said.

Asked about their priorities for the first 100 days, Preckwinkle emphasized development in South and West Side neighborhoods neglected for decades.

Lightfoot said she would summon Police Supt. Eddie Johnson “on Day One” and hammer out the details of his plan to combat summer violence.

Later Tuesday, Lightfoot picked up the endorsement of the Chicago Plumbers Union Local 130, which endorsed Daley in Round One.